31 January 2004

Quick trips

It says something when the most relaxing part of your day is hopping in a car and making a 90 minute round trip on a busy highway. That was yesterday, when I zipped out to collect some animals from the Coastal Studies Lab. I fetched a lobster I'd ordered earlier for one of my students, and mucked around in the sand pulling out some pearly sand crabs, including the biggest individual of the genus (Lepidopa) that I had ever seen. I'll have to take a picture of this critter, it's huge compared to its relatives!

Also speaking of trips, our first job candidate -- of eight -- arrives in two days. There are two job interviews a week, every week, for February. Still, as Search Committee Chair, I'm pretty proud that we're movng these candidates through at such a good clip. Even if I do fall down from nervous exhaustion sometime in the month.

Although I must confess, I've been experiencing weird combinations of nervousness and boredom lately. I sort of feel like a truck stuck in the mud: expending a lot of energy, but not necessarily managing to move in the direction I want. My plans to put in a grant application to the US Department of Agriculture got bogged down -- I just won't have the time to finish it. I haven't had a chance to work on a manuscript in a while. I keep having to remind myself that I accomplished something this month: first action potentials recorded, new ISN website, apparently a successful faculty development grant, and maybe a few other things.

29 January 2004

Not for the weak of stomach

I couldn't help myself when I saw this news story. I just had to click the link to "Whale explodes in Taiwanese city." I mean, you've got to be curious, haven't you?


One of the wonderful things about being in a university are all the meetings. We had a departmental faculty meeting Tuesday, and today we're having a college faculty meeting. One of the things I'm actually looking forward to hearing is that the Coastal Studies Lab is actually starting to get attention from administration, which will only be good for me.

28 January 2004

Small pleasures

Any day you can shake a vending machine to squeeze out two creme-filled chocolate cupcakes on some other sucker’s quarter... is a good day.

Today was a good day.

26 January 2004

Money talks

Hey, I got a raise this month! I’m not sure how I managed it, or what formula they used to calculate it, but I managed to get a merit increase based on last year’s work. The down side is that I think raises are normally given in September, but nobody got a raise then due to budget cutbacks. Ah well, as the song says, “It’s all part of the game.’

What you want is not what you've got
You can work 'til dawn but when will it stop?
You can take time off but never get caught
It's all part of the game

"Money Talks," Saga

22 January 2004

I can't talk, but I'm going to Washington anyway!

The bad news is that what started out as a cold on Saturday has morphed into what may be the worst case of laryngitis I've ever had. An ambitious group of viruses or bacteria seem to have taken up a happy residence in my vocal cords. when I talk, it sounds like somebody's run my voicebax through a cheese grater. I can barely talk. I am so glad I don't have a class to teach today. Yesterday, I had three, and I think it pushed the situation from bad to worse. Tomorrow's lectures could be... interesting. But the show, as they say, must go on.

The good news is that my department chair just let me know that my recent faculty development grant application is being recommended for approval. If all goes well, I'll be attending a short course on the Spike 2 software I use in April, right before the Experimental Biology meeting.

21 January 2004


A lot of hard work is starting to make its presence known on the internet, as the various routers update the ISN link to its new domain. It was quite a thrill to be able to type in "neuroethology.org" and finally see the redesigned website load. I'm real pleased with how it's come out, though there's still a lot more to do. Hop over there; it's pretty cool. Oooh, and if you reload the page, you'll get a different picture...

19 January 2004

“You can be replaced!” Part 2

Last week, I made note of the “robot scientist.” Here’s another news story about it. I feel this one is noteworthy for exposing some of the attitudes some researchers have in this quote:

“We’ve had robot scientists for a long time now,” jokes Chrisley. “But in the past we’ve always called them grad students.”
Replace “robot scientists” with something like “robot janitors” and “grad students” with any ethnic group (Hispanics, say) and see if you think that’s funny. Long hours, no fringe benefits, little job stability; yeah, that’s hysterical. Work conditions for junior researchers are such that more than one writer has compared some senior scientists to plantation owners – business thrives thrives only because of a cheap, voluminous workforce that doesn't get too uppity. Sadly, I’ve heard that senior scientists do have that attitude. I’ve been fortunate not to have any in my career, probably because I’m in one of the scientific backwaters where things are a little less competitive and not as fast-paced.


I’m felling better now, if you’re curious, though still not back to normal. Still have a sore throat and cough.

17 January 2004


My body's punishing me for something. Whether it's that I was hanging around people smoking cigars last night, or that I missed excercise, or that I spent to long at Tico's (local resto) way longer than I should with a bigger meal than I expected, or that I'm working too hard (ha!), I don't know. But I did not sleep well last night, have a sore throat and generally feel a little woozy. The Halls Icy Blue lozenges didn't help at all, but the Cool Berry Fruit Breezers seem to have done the trick.

I'm not going to stay at uni very long today. But I am spending a little time on my way back from Wal-Mart (where I picked up the aforementioned helpful Fruit Breezer lozenges) to set up some classroom technology stuff. I'm doing a pilot project using something called CPS, which should be cool. It's a wireless polling system that lets you survey people on the spot – anonymously, which is important in these big classes, so people don't feel like their being singled out. Anyway, I cam in to install some software and such, then realized that a good chunk of what I wanted is on my desk at home. I'll have to do it tomorrow or Monday. I have to come in for a meeting with one of my Honours students Monday (*) anyway, as much as I would love to stay home and watch the Godzilla movie stompathon on the SciFi Channel.

Also, the new International Society for Neuroethology website should be going live Tuesday. I'm really happy with how it's coming out. It's a major improvement over the previous site.

* Note to those outside the United States: this Monday is a federal holiday.

14 January 2004

Time waster of the moment

I really wanted one of these badly as a kid one Christmas.

"You can be replaced, gel jockey!"

First automobile contruction, now... research? This news story describes an automated scientist that designed experiments to test hypotheses. And it did the job better than graduate students.

I'm not sure if I'm lucky or unlucky that I work an area that can't be so easily automated as molecular biology.

13 January 2004

Scientists walkout?

Labour action in science is pretty rare, making this story of French researchers threatening to quit quite notable.

Two days in and it's a mess already

The new semester isn't even 48 hours old.

I'm overbooked on classes. I missed a class yesterday that I wasn't aware I was still slated to teach -- because I'm down for one more class than usual. Now the question is, which class will I drop to get back down to the right number? If I try to teach an extra class this semester, I will perish before my next birthday next month.

Went to hand in an internal funding form (Faculty development) and had the fun of trying to find out where the thing was supposed to go. "It says on the form to submit it to Dr. Gary Mounce, Library 1120." "He has no office here." Joy. Turned out that it was supposed to go to someone else in that room, but her name was definitely not Gary. Messed over by wrong instructions.

12 January 2004

Just asking for it

I wonder how long it'll be before cartoonist Iliad gets into hot water for this cartoon.

11 January 2004

How does that make you feel?

Or, “What are web journals for if not for embarrassing personal revelations?”

So I was perusing the Guardian's science website for news, and happened across an online empathy quiz. It’s being run as part of a feature on Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Essential Difference. It’s a self-test of how well you relate to others, your ability to “put yourself in their shoes,” etc. I take the quiz, and at the end, it says that women usually score 47 and men score 42. A score of 0-32 was the “lower than average” category, and it notes that high functioning autistics and people with Asperger's Syndrome score about 20.

Which is what I scored. 20. Eeep.

About the only thing I take comfort in is having heard a story on the Science Show that suggested that this sort of thing seems rather common in scientists. Ah yes, here’s the quote I remember:

[Simon Baron-Cohen] looked at a thousand students from Cambridge and assessed them on what he called ‘the autistic spectrum’.

Now these were normal, functioning intelligent people that had tried to decide whether they had particular autistic traits or not. And he found that the scientists, as opposed to the arts and humanists, came significantly higher on this autistic spectrum, they had more autistic traits.

The article goes on from there, and has a great deal of interesting things to say. Given that one of my interests is in public outreach (an avowed reason for this journal!), I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons that scientists are so seldom able to convey what it is that they do and why is because we scientists, as a group, suck at empathy. We can’t understand or predict why people should respond to particular findings or statements.

I hope it’s not too late to set a New Year’s resolution to walk more miles in others’ moccasins, so to speak.

In other news, let's see how the RAHC construction is progressing...

09 January 2004

Another shrewd Faulkes scheme bites the dust

The confocal grant proposal I wanted to do is in a coma. Not dead, but it won't be doing much until next year. It turns out that my collague had the same idea of putting in the grant to the National Science Foundation. But it turns out that each university is limited in how many proposals they can submit (two). The Dean decides which one goes forward, and two other groups were in the queue ahead of us.

Drat. Another opportunity to prove my tenure-worthy quality vanishes like so much smoke. Drat drat drat.

08 January 2004

Another proposal

I'm still waiting for my colleague to get back to talk about a confocal. So, in the meantime, I'm pulling together a short "Faculty development" proposal. This is a small amount of money (no more than $2,000) available from within the University to better your teaching and research. I'm asking for some cash to attend a short course on the use of the technical software I use in the lab, called Spike2. The short course is two days long, and is being held in Washington, DC. Having been able to visit the city a couple of times when the Society for Neuroscience meetings were there, I wouldn't mind at all going back. It has many lovely and interesting features, if you can overlook the poverty, violence, and the U.S. government.

But I digress.

These training days would be held just around the time of the Experimental Biology meeting, which I've never been to. Unfortunately, I doubt I would have the time or money to be able to attend the meeting. I could submit a late paper, but those are going to be shown as posters late in the meeting. I'd have to find about, oh, $1000 for the hotel and food to keep me there on the days between the end of the short course and when the poster session would run. And I doubt that'll happen.

Otherwise, how are things? I'm still nervous about teaching next week, for two reasons. First, I have a 7:45 am class (ugh). Second, I have a graduate class that has all of three students enrolled. That's not enough for the class to go forward, so some more students better crawl out of the woodwork pretty dang soon. Otherwise, I'll have to teach an evening class. And I don't want to be on campus until 7 or 8 and night and have to be here at 7 the next morning. That would just be icky.

06 January 2004

Classes? No, not yet!

I spent part of yesterday in the lab working on the recordings that I had made to learn how the software works. This was actually quite difficult, because the temperature control is whacked out. It's about 13-15 degrees Celsius in there! (Note to Americans: about 20 degrees Celsius is generally considered "comfortable room temperature").

Even if the lab were above teeth-chattering range, I'm not sure how many chances I'd have to work in there this week. Class starts next week, and I can feel all the weight starting to fall back down on my shoulders again. Lots of emails coming in, lots of phone calls. I just know that it's non-stop until the start of May.

03 January 2004


Texas, we have liftoff!

After some more fiddling around, the smaller spikes have died down and aren't so prominent, so I'm getting a much clearer signal. I'm convinced I've got real biological activity.

This is the same type of recording as the last journal entry. This time, the main spikes you see I can attribute to one cell: the tonic stretch receptor of the muscle receptor organ (MRO). It's a little sensory organ that fires when the tail is bent. This picture shows the response to my bending the tail, twice, with the second time being a little harder. At this scale, all the individual spikes sort of blur into one big chunk when the stretch receptor fires really fast, so you see a wide fuzzy stripe instead of individual action potentials. You can see a few single potentials trailing off at the end of the recording, before the tail completely relaxes.

It only took, what, a year and a half to get to this point?

Well, I don't care. This is definitely a great start to the New Year. And boy, did I ever need it! It's a small landmark for me and my research: my first recording from a neuron in my own lab with my own equipment. Or maybe thst should be a "benchmark," since lab work is sometimes called bench work.


I think I’ve managed something I should have done some time ago. I think I’ve finally managed to record some action potentials....


This is an extracellular recording of sensory neurons in nerve 2 of an abdominal ganglion of a crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) tail. At one point in this recording, the tail flexed spontaneously, so about one third of the way in from the left, you see a substantial increase in the number of spikes (neural activity). It’s a recording of many neurons at once, so you see lots of spikes with different sizes and shapes and such.

Turns out that the major problem was that I’d wired some cables together wrong. Stupid DIN plugs. Fortunately, my crack about British engineers didn't stop me from getting good help from the hardware support people and Cambridge Electronics Devices, who made my amplifier and analogue/digital board. And it was good to know that my grief over soldering plugs and cables together yesterday actually paid off.

The next step – well, it’s not so much a step as a marathon. I’m going to have a ton of refinements to do to make sure that I'm getting good recordings. I have to make a bucket more cables and connectors and wires. And I really have to convince myself that this isn’t all some weird recording artefact that has nothing to do with the crayfish. Heaven knows I’ve been fooled before, but let’s not talk about that.

Oh, and here’s something to make the British engineers feel batter: another old joke. “In heaven, the police are British, the food is French, and the engineering is German. In hell, the police are German, the food is British, and the engineering are French.”

02 January 2004

In the “Nobody ever tells me anything” department...

Okay. That’d be one graduate degree, two postdocs, and two years on the job that I’ve been working with electronics. And today I discover I've been doing soldering all wrong all this time. D’oh! Three supervisors, and none ever gave me a hint about the subtleties of joining two wires together. Yeah, the stuff I did before worked somehow, but I did it the wrong way. I learned today (through the wonders of a Google search with the keywords, “how to solder”) that you’re never supposed to pick up a bit of solder on the tip and “paint” the wires, which is something I'd done many times...

C'est la guerre.

And to make matters even more annoying, I’m trying to solder wires into a 6-pin mini DIN plug, which is extremely annoying, because you can barely get that soldering iron in around the wire cups. One of the more irritating connections known to man. Must be a British engineer involved in their creation somewhere.

(Old joke: “Why was there never a mass-market British computer? Because they couldn’t figure out how to make it leak oil.” Current and former MG owners like myself find that joke hysterical.)

01 January 2004

Blessing or curse?

So after having spent several days working on a grant proposal for a confocal microscope, I get confirmation that another faculty member was doing the same thing. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, it theoretically means less work for me. On the other, I know from experience that it can be difficult to integrate text from two authors, especially when it wasn't originally planned to work together.

New Year's Day

Can't do much at work today, since there's almost nobody else around - nobody to answer some of the questions I need answering, in any case. So I finished reading a book I've been working through on and off throughout the intersemester gap, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (sometimes referred to simply as "GEB").

The book is about a lot of things, but I think it's mostly about artifical intelligence. I had to admit, I was disappointed. I've run across references to this book constantly, almost invariably hearing it held up with high praise. But I didn't find it engaging. Perhaps I was too lazy to put the effort into really appreciating it, because there are fairly lengthy sections of simple computer code used to demonstrate various points, and I just wasn't interested enough to work through them in detail.

I did find several points of note, though. One of the funniest to me was,,, well earlier in this journal I've occasionally referred to Zen's Law of Time: "Everything takes longer than you expect." Now, I must bow to my elders, since page 152 of GEB contains Hofstatder's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstatder's Law."

Contrary to proverb, I think there is something new under the sun, but my law of time wasn't it. Dang.